In the Manchester Guardian of the 1920s, and later within his collected fishing essays entitled ‘Rod and Line’. Arthur Ransome demonstrated the perfect temperament needed for a winter evening of fly tying, and in turn gave us ample food for thought whilst we ourselves are sat before the vice during those long dark nights of wintertime.
Ransome skilfully points out that the angler dispirited by thoughts of a few further inactive months, finds winter fly tying a substitute to fishing itself, in Ransome’s words “It is the sort of licking of the lips that eases a thirsty man in a desert”. And of course, he is right. Winter evenings spent in front of the vice will indeed bring us nearer to the impression of fishing. As we thumb through capes and scraps of fur, our minds are intuitively drawn to the possibilities of a new season, or are rolling back the mists of the previous one. Illuminated by the lamp’s circle of light, winter creations are already captivating minds. Fishing days are taking shape as our fingers industriously wind silks and hackle. The fly-tyer has moved through time to again become the flyfisher. The stream’s restful ease once again fills the mind, and the weight of the rushing water presses against your knees. Bathed in warm sunshine, mayflies are once more hatching, and in the upstream shallows you see the rise of a good trout. These happy memories or imaginings are indeed, in the mind’s eye, made real through the wrapping of threads and the settings of wings.
Like Ransome, I believe it is foolish to experiment with flies in the winter. For in the upcoming season’s battle, winter’s impertinent experiments are inevitably rejected in favour of familiar and dependable comrades that share the glories of the past. Instead, I prefer and like to perfect, the flies that I know and trust. I have come to think of my winter evenings fly tying as a time for reflection and thought, and believe the patterns dressed during those dark evenings of December and January should carry a hallmark of patience and quality. Bead-head nymphs and other simple creations are expelled, delayed in part to short “in season” sessions, where plain patterns can be efficiently whipped-up in haste. Like Ransome before me, winter evenings are a time to dress old classics. I know for instance that a season of olives will happily be covered with a dozen or so Greenwell’s Glory in various sizes. And so, in spare moments after dark I dress a selection of this most iconic of patterns. The aesthetic delight of this winged pattern is perfect for an evening’s fly tying, and as Ransome notes “a dozen Greenwell’s Glory, and this with its starling wing, dull-waxed yellow silk, gold thread, and coch-y-bondhu hackle, is a fly about which we are not likely to make mistakes, even by the light of a candle.” Whether dressed and fished as a wet fly or winged upright, Greenwell’s age old pattern constantly beguiles both myself and the river’s trout. As Ransome did, I also discard the canon’s prescribed wing of Blackbird slips. And instead favour the primary slips of starling wings, these like blackbird have a degree of transparency and portray nature’s delicacy better than today’s often used mallard primaries. As a dry fly the Greenwell sits as daintily and as proud on the water’s surface, as it does having just fallen from my vice onto the desk’s smooth surface. As a wet, its sleek and slender profile gives imagination to the dressing, and it swims and drifts through the river’s currents enticing trout as it goes.
Hook – Size 14, 16 & 18
Body: Silk waxed to the preferred shade
Rib: Fine Gold Wire
Hackle: Coch-y-Bonddhu Cock
Wing: Paired starling slips
Tail: Coch-y-Bonddhu Hackle fibres
In his article Ransome also informs us of the usefulness of the Black Spider, and notes “there is always sense in filling up our stock of them, with red, black, orange, or orange and gold bodies, hackled with plain black cock’s hackle or, better, the soft metallic blue-black hackles from the head and neck of a cock pheasant.” Again, Ransome is inescapably correct with his assertion, for there is no more useful a fly than a Black Spider. I have in all honesty, lost count of the number of winter evenings spent tying spiders, and probably like Arthur Ransom a large proportion of them have been variations on the Black Spider theme. However, it wasn’t until re-reading Ransome’s classic work a number of years ago, that I followed Ransome in his use of cock pheasant head and neck feathers on my favourite Black Spider dressing, the Spring Black. I know of no other finer dressing when something small and black is needed to entice wild browns that are selectively feeding on or just below the surface. It is a pattern that has relegated the Snipe & Purple along with Stewart’s Black Spider to the roles of innocent bystanders within my catalogue of patterns. And during the long evenings of December, when next season’s subscription is signed and posted, dozens of this prized little pattern will be falling from the vice at regular intervals.
Thread: Purple silk
Body: Purple silk ribbed with magpie herl
Hackle: Cock pheasant neck feather
Another pattern that absorbs me during these winter evening fly tying sessions, is William Lunn’s Houghton Ruby. It has the uncanny ability to bring to the fore memories of the exalted River Test. Seated before the vice, recollections of summer’s distant hours flood back, and I am once again kneeling before a chalk-stream trout. The departing glories of the dying sun cast a rosy patina on the sliding river’s surface, as the Houghton Ruby was cast over my last trout of early evening. Tight to the near bank and shaded with the margins growth, the trout lazily indulged in a fall of returning spinners, blissfully unaware of my residence behind the veil of unmown grass. With imperceptible ease my fly drifted down to intercept the trout’s lustful stare and was gone. The thoughtful lift of the rod gave purchase to my sinful deceit, and the trout was ensnared by the sharpness of the fly’s smooth point. My rod kicked and bucked as the trout vainly tied to find the sanctuary of the swaying weed. Within moments the plump trout was engulfed by the net and I was once again in the circle of lamplight, balancing tails and aligning wings on this most accomplished dry fly.
Hook: 14 or 16
Thread: UNI 8/0 Claret
Body: Rhode Island Hackle-stalk dyed with red and crimson
Hackle: Bright Rhode Island red hackle
Wings: Two light blue dun hen tips from the breast or back, set on flat
Tail: Three fibres from white cock’s hackle
Every angler has an affection for certain patterns. I do not merely mean “local” patterns, but standard patterns which he will endorse on any water. Thankfully the dark vigil of winter gives us ample opportunity to stock up on these advocated patterns. I myself, identify this endorsement within the Quill Gordon. It is a pattern that unflinchingly takes trout where ever it lands, and during winters ease reminds me of distant days within the charmed circle of the Catskills. The use of quill bodies on dry flies is nothing new, and dates back to centuries of British fly tying tradition. However, it was not until this body material got the “Catskill” treatment that quill-bodied flies took on such proportions of beauty. This bewitching pattern has become the symbol of American dry-fly fishing thanks to its association with Theodore Gordon. In his small shack on the Neversink River, Gordon severed America’s dependence on British fly pattern design and laid down the foundations for the famous Catskill school of fly tying, and in so doing became the ‘Father of American Dry Fly Fishing’. Gordon’s famous pattern has an elegance and quiet modesty about it, and appeals to my inner sixth sense, even when encased within the restrictive compartments of the fly box. The beauty and uniformity of its slim segmented body and speckled wood duck wings brings out a devotion in the fly tyer. It is a fly that has the power to beguile anglers and trout in equal measure and is the perfect pattern to dress during the sombre evenings of winter, when out of reach the ink blue river slides nonchalant below winter’s nebulous sky. The correct and proportionate formation of its stripped quill body, requires a measured deliberation that enlightens a winters night. The short period of soaking the quills allows the fly tyer to rejoice in the art of fly tying as he busily picks and prepares wood duck feathers for wings. Each stage of the dressing requires a delicacy of thought and touch, and in so doing, becomes the perfect distraction for the fly-tyer on winter evenings.
Hook: 12,14 & 16
Thread: Uni 8/0 White
Tail: Medium Blue Dun fibres
Body: Stripped Peacock Eye Quill
Wing: Wood Duck Feather
Hackle: Medium Blue Dun
So what of Ransome’s winter fly tying endeavours? Well, besides the early article of the 1920s, Ransome left scant information about his own personal fly tying habits until 1959, with the last publication of his lifetime ‘Mainly About Fishing‘. Here in its opening chapter entitled ‘Why Dress Flies‘ Ransome again touches on the joys of fly tying and remarks “unless an angler makes his own flies, half the pleasure of fishing has not been tasted”. Again Ransome is uncannily right, for generations of fly tyers will bear witness to the fact that there is no greater feeling that catching a fish on a fly that you have personally created. But as legions of fly tyers will testify to, there is much, much more to fly tying than that simple fulfilment of a skilful conclusion.
Arthur Ransome only left us with one signature fly from his nights of fly tying, the Elver Fly. It is a pattern from the remarkably titled chapter “Salmon Chew Gum”. Though now fallen foul of the modern hair-wing trend for salmon and sea-trout flies, Ransome’s Elver Fly is nevertheless a great pattern for migratory fish. I am no salmon angler myself, and share Ransome’s thoughts on the futility of designing and tying salmon flies.
“There is just no sense about it. Fishing for salmon is like talking with a lunatic. And, as for the designing of salmon-flies — it may well be thought that the salmon is not the only lunatic concerned. We have a very good word in the north for affairs that depend on pure luck. We say that they are very ‘hitty-missy’. Well, for sheer, unadulterated hitty-missiness, the designing of salmon flies must take a lot of beating.”
However, I do tie-up a small number of Ransome’s classic pattern during the sessions of winter. This pattern is equally adaptable as a streamer, and often has allowed me to tempt those big old trout that lay low and deep in the dark dubs of my native dale’s rivers. An outcome that Ransome himself would no doubt have wholeheartedly approved of. But in the bleakness of winter as I smooth and wrap the flat body floss of this pattern, the Elver Fly conjurers up images of the Cornish coast, and speaks to me of family holidays in the far south-west. The evening high tide swells and breaks its white-water over the windswept jagged rocks, as my fly is cast into the maelstrom of the tides’ confused currents, and intermittently stripped back. The savage jag of the rod tip reveals the take and ensuing fight of a sea bass. These are images that fly tying brings readily to the mind, fly tying has the power to evoke many memories and thoughts, inclinations that are often lacking during the concentration of our actual fishing time. In the dark evenings of winter, fly tying is in many ways like a photograph. It has the power to remind us of our past achievements, and at the same time revitalize our hopes a favourable future. There is no closed season for the fly tyer during a winter’s twilight, his mind is alive with thoughts of fishing, probably more so than during the actual season itself. As Ransome states whilst sat before the vice “he can be far away, seeing smooth water dimpled by a rising fish”
Ransome’s Elver Fly
Hook: Size 6 Longshank Streamer Hook
Thread: UNI 6/0 Red
Body: Black floss ribbed with flat silver tinsel
Cheeks: Vulturine Guinea Fowl
Hackle: Cobalt Blue Vulturine Guinea Fowl Breast feather
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.